In 1550, Giorgio Vasari, the famous architect, painter, historian and writer, published the first edition of his monumental collection of biographies, ‘The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects’. A Second Edition was published in 1568.
In the course of his monograph on Leonardo da Vinci, Vasari included a wonderfully descriptive paragraph about ‘Mona Lisa’, and its first sentence has become one of the most vital and examined few words in all the canon of literature concerning ‘Mona Lisa’. It is loaded with information, which until the earlier part of the 20th Century was the standard source on this subject:
“Prese Lionardo a fare per Francesco del Giocondo il ritratto di Mona Lisa sua moglie; e quattro anni penatovi lo lascio imperfetto, la quale opera oggi e appresso il Re Francesco di Francia in Fontanableo.”
“Leonardo undertook to execute, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa his wife, and after he had lingered over it for four years, he left it unfinished; and the work is today in the possession of King Francis of France, at Fontainebleau.”
[Note: Leonardo did not work on the portrait consistently over the four-year period, and, as with most of his paintings, he had others execute certain parts. It is known that he was also involved on other projects during this time, and he was frequently out of the city.]
Here Vasari introduces the relatively unknown Francesco del Giocondo, his wife, and for the first time, the name “ … Mona Lisa …”. He continues by stating that, after working on it for four years, Leonardo left the painting in unfinished condition, and that, in 1550, it was in the possession of King Francis I of France, at Fontainebleau. However, the painting that is today in the Louvre, generally believed to have been the one originally at Fontainebleau, is finished.
“Clearly, it was because of his profound knowledge of painting that Leonardo started so many things without finishing them; for he was convinced that his hands, for all their skill, could never perfectly express the subtle and wonderful ideas of his imagination.” Giorgio Vasari, 1568
Vasari dates the execution of the painting to shortly after Leonardo’s return to Florence, which was in 1500. Mona Lisa, born in 1479, was at that time a young woman in her early 20s.
VASARI INTRODUCES LISA
“Leonardo undertook to execute, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife, and after he had lingered over it for four years, he left it unfinished; and the work is today in the possession of King Francis of France, at Fontainebleau. Anyone wishing to see the degree to which art could imitate nature could readily perceive this from the head; since therein are counterfeited all those minutenesses that with subtlety are able to be painted: seeing that the eyes had that lustre and moistness which are always seen in the living creature, and around them were the lashes and all those rosy and pearly tints that demand the greatest delicacy of execution. The eyebrows, through his having shown the manner in which the hairs spring from the flesh, here more close and here more scanty, and curve according to the pores of the flesh, could not be more natural. The nose, with its beautiful nostrils, rosy and tender, appeared to be alive. The mouth with its opening , and with its ends united by the red of the lips to the flesh-tints of the face, seemed, in truth, to be not colours but flesh. In the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse: and indeed it may be said that it was painted in such a manner as to make every brave artificer, be he who he may, tremble and lose courage. He employed also this device: Mona Lisa being very beautiful, while he was painting her portrait, he retained those who played or sang, and continually jested, who would make her to remain merry, in order to take away that melancholy which painters are often wont to give to their portraits. And in this work of Leonardo there was a smile so pleasing , that it was a thing more divine than human to behold, and it was held to be something marvelous, in that it was not other than alive.”
Thus, Giorgio Vasari describes, in almost passionate detail, Leonardo’s portrait of ‘Mona Lisa’.
” … after he had lingered over it for four years, he left it unfinished … ” Giorgio Vasari, 1550.
The conundrum with Vasari is what is believable, and what is not. Many of his ‘facts’ can be cross- referenced with other material, but conservative researchers will not venture into the realms of some of Vasari’s ‘embellishments’. His work has great value and insight as long as it can be verified by independent sources.
Reading through Vasari’s version of Leonardo’s life, there appears to be a large number of errors. To be completely objective, they are believed to be errors because of subsequent new evidence: they obviously weren’t errors for Vasari! In addition, there are glaring omissions of many years of Leonardo’s life. Vasari must have known of these gaps, and simply ignored them, perhaps for lack of information. Today, modern art historians can piece together Leonardo’s activities almost to the day; though it seems that there are still years of his life about which we know nothing.
Vasari’s section on ‘Mona Lisa’ must surely rank as one of the most beautiful descriptive passages for any painting. Recent dedicated scholarship indicates that the painting Vasari described in such detail is probably not the one now in the Louvre.
- Probably Vasari’s greatest error in his Mona Lisa section was in suggesting that the painting was in the collection of King Francis I at Fontainebleau in 1550 and again in 1568. King Francis had already died in 1547, therefore this was impossible. Today it is accepted that the version of the ‘Mona Lisa’ acquired by Francis, and which subsequently found its way to the Louvre, is the painting Leonardo had with him at Cloux: the one he showed to the Cardinal of Aragon. This is not the portrait described by Vasari, the one painted for Francesco del Giocondo. Vasari never travelled to, or visited any part of France. He was only 5 years old and still living in Arezzo where he was born, when Leonardo left Rome for the Loire Valley. Therefore Vasari never saw any paintings that Leonardo brought there.
- No evidence exists as to why Vasari stated that the ‘Mona Lisa’ was in Fontainebleau. The statement is purely speculative, and clearly misleading. It is, however, very possible that when Leonardo had the ‘Earlier Version’ with him in Rome, Vasari did not realise or was not informed that Leonardo began a new work of the same Mona Lisa, but on wood. He understood the ‘painting’ ended up in the French Royal Collection but was not aware of the portrait on wood replacing the earlier one on canvas.
- No evidence exists that del Giocondo received the portrait he commissioned from Leonardo. There is no evidence of a payment made or received, nor any significant painting left in his estate after he died.
- The paintings that Leonardo showed to Cardinal Luigi were completely finished at the time: de Beatis writes “ … perfettissimi”. That was in 1517 [see 'What 'Mona Lisa' does Antonio de Beatis Refer to?']. But in his First Edition of the ‘Vite’, in 1550, and subsequently in the later, amended Second Edition of 1568, Vasari insists that the ‘Mona Lisa’ “ … remained unfinished.”
- The ‘Gioconda’ (‘La Joconde‘) – the Louvre Version of ‘Mona Lisa’ is obviously finished.
- The only known version of a Mona Lisa dating from the first years of the 16th Century that remains unfinished is the earlier version of ‘Mona Lisa’ – the one previously referred to as the ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’.
De Beatis and Vasari are therefore not writing about the same painting. Based on the above, The Mona Lisa Foundation believes that Vasari was describing the earlier version of ‘Mona Lisa’.
Vasari was likely relying on reports from a person or persons who had actually seen the painting. Obviously that person(s) had reported it in such glowing terms that Vasari felt the necessity to give it prominence in his treatise. However, he likely did not realise that the painting which entered the French Royal collection was an evolution of the earlier portrait described so eloquently to him.
Parts of Vasari’s text on Leonardo exemplify a unique kind of visual description that is the oldest type of writing about art in the West. It was created by the ancient Greeks and was called ‘ekphrasis’ Its use became popular between the 15th and 18th Centuries. Ekphrasis is a rhetorical device in which one medium of art relates to another by defining and describing its essence and form, and in so doing, relates more directly to the audience through its illuminative liveliness. Often, the ekphrastic description became a demonstration of both the creative imagination and the skill of the writer. Originally, for many readers of classic Greek and Latin texts, it did not really matter whether the subject was real or imagined – what was paramount was to form habits of thinking and writing, and not necessarily historical evidence.
Vasari’s flowery descriptions of musicians and jesters employed to alleviate Mona Lisa’s alleged melancholia; and Leonardo expiring “ …in the arms of the King.” would be typical examples.
In Plato’s ‘Phaedrus’, Socrates explains it to Phaedrus:
“You know Phaedrus, that is the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly correspond to painting.
The painter’s products stand before us as if they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence.
It is the same with written words.
They seem to talk to you as if they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever.”
GIORGIO VASARI (1511-74)
Considering the stature of this man in Italy throughout the 16th Century, his accomplishments cannot be ignored. In any historical research of the period, his name crops-up as a serious authority. His monumental work: ‘The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects’ (the ‘Vite’) remains a standard reference for all students of Italian Renaissance art. It was first published in March, 1550 as ‘Le Vite de’ piu Eccellenti Architetti, Pittori, et Scultori Italiani, da Cimabue insino a’ nostri Tempi’. The Uffizi Museum, and the adjoining ‘Corridoio Vasariano’, both designed by Vasari, are masterpieces of innovative architecture. A true ‘Renaissance Man’ in his own right, he was also a prolific painter, and for reasons unclear to us, apparently covered the remains of Leonardo’s ‘Battle of Anghiari’ fresco with works of his own. However it is his ‘Vite’ that is of primary concern here, and of course in particular his biography of Leonardo da Vinci. If this was the only reference source on the subject, then every word could be taken at face-value and left at that. But the subsequent centuries have brought new insights, and revealed much conflicting evidence heretofore unknown. This scholarship changes not just opinions, but the perspective through which art is viewed, especially in its historical context.